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A. D. Nauman

Soft Skull Press

US Trade Paperback First Edition

ISBN 1-887128-64-6

224 Pages; $12.00

Date Reviewed: 03-06-02

Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel



Science Fiction, General Fiction

02-28-02, 03-07-02, 03-11-02

Social science fiction has a rather troubled history. It has yielded some great works of literature, from '1984' to 'Fahrenheit 451'. But when non-genre literary writers decide that they, too, can write great science fiction -- without having read any -- the results are usually less felicitous. A. D. Nauman is a writer who has been published in "many literary journals". Her debut novel, 'Scorch' is described on the back cover as "A dystopian novel in the spirit of 1984 and Brave New World". Frankly, the signs aren't good. The surprise is that in spite of some problems, 'Scorch' is a good novel. Nauman finds an entertaining voice and has an interesting vision -- of the present.

'Scorch' is set in a near-future America where the government has been subsumed into huge corporations. Arel Ashe is a rather plain 30-something woman who is going nowhere in the Adstories department of one of the three. Her second job is at a library, which bears more resemblance to a huge video store than what we think of as a library today. When she loses her job in the Adstories department, she begins a downhill slide towards poverty that can kill. 'Scorch' becomes a race towards success in a society where consumption is mandatory and backstabbing your coworkers is an admirable trait.

'The Space Merchants', by Frederick Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth is probably the most famous evocation of capitalism gone mad. 'Scorch' follows a very similar trail as the one-time happy consumer and ad writer is converted to socialism by her experiences as she nears the bottom of the ladder. What Nauman brings to the story that is new is a woman's perspective and a lower key satire than that of Pohl and Kornbluth. In the library where Arel works, she finds books in a back room when she seeks a more private sexual liaison with a good-looking Ken-doll type who comes to find some adstories. The result of her socially accepted desire for instant gratification is her discovery of some socialist and Marxist literature. As we all know -- reading changes people. Soon, Arel is spouting off party-line socialist wisdom in the midst of her ultra-capitalist world. The results are amusing.

Also amusing is the world itself. Nauman develops some interesting riffs -- from "Just About Butter" to Just about anything. She also does an effective job skewering today's media star and body-type obsessions, as she follows a Dolla Dare from just beneath the pinnacle, to the top, and the slide downward that follows. Her language is pretty sparse and simple and her satire is at times reminiscent of Philip K. Dick.

There are some very genre specific problems in the novel that might have been better edited. For example, at one point a character refers to a sound recording device as a "mini-taper", an appealingly clumsy derivative. However, elsewhere in the book the same device is referred to as a mini-recorder. In other places, some devices are constantly mentioned but never really described, and so they never quite coalesce in the reader's vision.

Nauman makes up for these deficiencies with a razor sharp view of the present, re-created in her skewed future. Media figures work well in 'Scorch', and it's clear that Arel Ashe is herself a "scorch" -- in Nauman's world, the scorch is the character in an adstory who tries to resist the commerce-driven madness and is inevitably destroyed by their own foolishness. There's an effective subplot about a campaign to get the homeless off the streets by offering $29.95 per homeless person, if they're captured and delivered to the slave-camp prisons. Nauman manages to keep this -- and the rest of the novel from being heavy-handed with a light prose touch, a breezy narrative and a helpful brevity.

Nauman's prose and her unflagging socialist enthusiasm offer hope that she could do some great writing. 'Scorch' is an effective first novel. It has flaws, but if you think you'd like a satire on today's ultra-consumer taken to level N, from a literary woman's point of view, then the chances are that you'll enjoy this novel. Nauman seems to have a bit of knack for this sort of thing. If she invests her time wisely, reads up in the genre and keep on writing, we could have a feisty female socialist to keep Ken Macleod company.